Author: Helen Rappaport
Genre: Non-fiction- Russian History
On the sweltering summer night of July 16, 1918, in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg, a group of assassins led an unsuspecting Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, the desperately ill Tsarevich, and their four beautiful daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, into a basement room where they were shot and then bayoneted to death.
This is the story of those murders, which ended three hundred years of Romanov rule and set their stamp on an era of state-orchestrated terror and brutal repression. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I loved this book! I read this book as part of a group read; it has been on my TBR for months now so I am happy that I finally read it ! Helen Rappaport tells the story of the Romanovs and their murder in a unique way, focusing on the last days of their incarceration in the Ipatiev House in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg. Although she gives the reader the necessary backstory: Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, their days of house arrest in Tobolsk at the Governor’s House and their subsequent transfer to Ekaterinburg, the book focuses on those last few days of the Romanovs’ lives, confined to five rooms with the last of their servants, their horrific death, and their botched burial and reburial by the Ural Regional Soviet. Using the Tsar’s and Tsarista’s last diary entries made during their stay in the Ipatiev House, she reconstructs not only their highly confined and dull last days, but the local events taking place outside of the house in the city, the flip-flopping of King George V of England and the larger Western world that ultimately doomed the Tsar and his family to their fate, and events with Lenin in Moscow who Rappaprt claims is ultimately responsible for the family’s death.
Before I read this book, I only knew the bare basics of what happened to the Romanovs; that they had been held in a house and then killed in the basement. Even though I knew this going in, the reality of their captivity was deeply unsettling to me. The windows were whitewashed so that the family could not see outside. They were confined to five small rooms with the last of their servants. They were allowed outside twice a day for a half hour in the small garden; their view of the outside was blocked by a palisade- a second, higher palisade was constructed when the guards realized that when the Tsar used the swing in the garden the tops of his boots were visible to the citizens passing by. The windows of the house were bared shut, making the rooms hot and stuffy in the summertime. Only small ventilating spaces above the windows were allowed to be open. Their lives were reduced to reading and playing endless games of cards. Rappaport dedicated a chapter each to the Tsar, his wife the sickly Tsarists, their deathly ill son Alexey, and a chapter on the four daughters- Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. We also learn about their loyal servants, including Dr. Botkin who, on leaving his ten children behind to accompany the royal family during their house arrest, had the uncanny insight to remark to an acquaintance ” I have come here knowing quite well that I shall not escape with my life. All I ask is to be permitted to die with my emperor.” Unfortunately, his prediction was proved correct.
The Ipatiev House, the last place of residence for the Romanov family
Rappaport also tells of what was happening in the city of Ekaterinburg at the time. Czech forces were advancing on the city from Eastern Siberia and it was becoming increasingly unlikely that the Bolsheviks could keep the city out of their hands. The urban population was on the verge of starvation and those suspected of being anti-Bolshevik were taken out of the city and shot. The so-called Whites, who spit from the Bolshevik party years ago, and Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who disagreed with the Bolshevik treaty with Germany, were also active in the area causing further unrest. With the Czechs swiftly approaching the decision was made to ‘liquidate’ the entire Romanov family. Rappaport maintains that their execution was sanctioned by Lenin despite any evidence of a paper trail the independent work of the Ural Regional Soviet which has long been supposed. After reading the book I agree that it is very plausible that Lenin gave the order and then let the Ural Regional Soviet take the blame.
By far the best chapters of the book were the last three, which cover preparations made by the Bolsheviks on the day before the murder, the murder themselves, and the horrible debacle that followed in deposing of the bodies. Even though I knew the ultimate fate of the family, and their servants, before reading the book, I could stop my heart from racing due to the anticipation Rappaport constructs in leading up to the murders. The chapter on the murders themselves was the best chapter of the entire book, Rappaport not being afraid to potentially disturb some readers in her exposing of the gruesome, horrifying nature of the crime and the utter inhumanity of the executioners and the Bolshevik regime that had taken hold in Russia. The fact that the entire family were posthumously proclaimed saints of the Russian Orthodox Church is small consolation to the agonizing deaths they suffered.
Church on the Blood, built on the site of the Ipatiev House, where the Romanov family was murdered
Rappaport does not engage in any discussion over the controversy as to whether Anastasia survived, only commenting that briefly that it such an event would have been impossible. Knowing what I know now as to how the murders were planned and carried out, I am inclined to agree with here- there was simply no possibility of escape.
Rappaport only tells us enough of Nicholas II’s rule before his abdication and the conditions in Russia at the time that led to the revolution as is necessary; these events are simply beyond the scope of this book, to include more would have been to distract from the events of the lasts days of the family. However, I must admit that my interest is now piqued to find out more. If you are at all curious about this time in Russian history or the Romanovs I would recommend that you check out this book; it may be small but the story contained with is remarkable!
Portrait of the Romanov family
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? Also, anyone have any recommendations for the Romanovs, this period in Russian history, Russian history in general, or Russian Lit?